When visiting Souk el-Chaouachia in the Medina of Tunis, you find yourself passing by the little workshops of Chaouachi (Chechia artisans), where you can observe them, in their working overalls, busily working, brushing, ironing, checking the finishing or counting Chechias. At first, one might assume that their entire world revolves around their 3m by 5m store, filled with boxes of Chechia piled from top to bottom. If you ask a Chaouachi the simple question, “How is the Chechia made”, he will give you a gentle smile. Similar to a smile you would get from a rocket scientist if you asked, “How does the rocket leave the earth”.  It might at first strike you as an arrogant smile but if you dig deeper into the subject, you will start to realize the entrepreneurial might of the seemingly simple Chaouachi.

Now knowing what I know and being an entrepreneur myself, a Chaouachi in my opinion, could be benchmarked against those inspiring CEO’s of multinationals. The ones that make me eager to read their inspiring stories of jumping from start-ups to multinationals. Believe me, our own Chaouachi are no less inspiring than multinational business men. It’s just that before our revolution, a successful CEO had to be well connected, forget about the rest. Well, on the 14th of Jan 2011, I was sitting infront of my computer, browsing on Facebook. I admit, not very revolutionary, but now I’ve decided to honour the martyrs of our revolution in my own way and tell the world about our own national global brand: the Tunisian Coca Cola, IKEA, Hermes… It’s time, that we honour our national success stories!

To help you grasp our national global brand, allow me to play the part of a Chaouachi to give you insight into my business. So how does the little Chachia end up in a beautiful box at my store in Souk el-Chaouachia? First I need to import wool. I know what you’re thinking, why import wool? Don’t we have local sheep’s wool? Yes we do, but their fur is too curly for the soft finish of the Chachia.

The best wool for a Chachia is Australian wool. I import the white Australian wool yarn either directly from Australia or from China, where I sometimes travel to, to negotiate with local suppliers and check the wool’s quality before it is shipped to Tunisia. Since these countries are really far away, shipment is costly, so I try to share a container of wool yarn with other Chaouachi in the souk. To do so we discuss amongst each other and put the total sum into one bank account, to go through further bank and importation procedures.

One or two months later, a container full of wool yarn arrives in Tunisia. The producer, of course, gets his full payment; since the goods were delivered successfully. Every Chaouachi has invested a good amount of foreign currency into getting the best raw material in the world.

Now the wool needs to be distributed to women who crochet the Kabbouss from their homes in several rural towns around Bizerte or Ariana. Each artisan crochets a maximum of about half a dozen Kabbouss a day. Once the female artisans have crocheted all the wool yarn that they receive, they send it to my shop in the Medina, where I check the quality of the Kabbouss and pay each woman depending on the quality and quantity of her work.

Now my Kabbouss are sent to female artisans in the Medina, who stitch my personal logo onto each piece. Each Chaouachi has his own stitched logo. The Kabbouss are then sent to the town of Battan, where the felting and dying process takes place at a felting factory which was constructed near Medjerda River about 100 years ago. At Battan, my Kabbous gets wet and beaten up until it shrinks from a huge white crocheted bag-like Kabbouss into a little sad white Chachia.

From Battan, the beaten up Chachias return to my store for inspection. I know exactly which ones are mine because of the little logo stitched on to the Chachia. It might have shrunk in size but it’s still visible after the beating. Once I finish my inspections, I send them to al-Alya, where many families brush the little hats with a plant called “Kardesh”, a plant that Andalusian people used to treat their hats with in Andalusia. When Andalusians immigrated to North Africa, the artisans responsible for brushing Chachias settled in al-Alya, where they planted“Kardesh” plants, enabling them to continue their craft wherever they settle.

Now my Chachias are well brushed and need to travel to Dawar Hisher, where artisans dye, mould and bake them in an oven for at least 12 hours. At this stage my Chachia is well shrunk from the beating-up in Battan, well brushed thanks to the Andalusian“Kardesh”plant and nicely baked in an oven after receiving its red dyeing. Now we find ourselves back in my little shop for final inspections. Here I iron, label and pack the Chachias into boxes which are labelled with my name-since I am a 4th generation Chaouachi, my name is a brand of quality and trust.

Now that my Chachia has traveled across half of the world, from Australia to Tunisia and then around Tunisia during the time of its production process, it’s time to travel to the other half of the world; I’m ready to export to all of my African clients!

Voilà, I have made a Chachia and sold it about five months after I ordered the wool yarn from China. About 3000 families were part of the production process. About 50 tons of Chachias are produced yearly of which only 5% are consumed locally. And all of this, is managed from my 3m by 5m workshop at Souk el-Chaouachia in the Medina of Tunis.

Ouf! I’m done with being a Chaouachi, back to myself- a small entrepreneur from Tunisia and an advocate for entrepreneurship. Now allow me to explain two things: First, why the Chaouachi should be our national Richard Branson and second, why the Chachia should be our national Hermès.

First of all, entrepreneurship is about endless passion, calculated risks, creating and seizing opportunities and focus, tremendous focus. Now imagine being a Chaouachi, 95% of your clients come from unstable countries, your little product takes at least 4 months to make, your production process depends up to 50% on women working from homes, scattered in rural areas around the country. Your product must pass by Battan, a factory which runs 100 year-old machines and is in desperate need of renovations; how much love, dedication and leadership skills would you need to keep up with all of this?

As a consultant, I’ve worked on projects that focus on women employed in home-based businesses. Despite the investment offering high social return, production dependency is low in production control. Imagine production processes starting with maybe 50 women crocheting Kabbouss in the little town of Metlin. There’s a good chance the women are all relatedin one way or another, hence production works could suddenly seize because of a death in one of the families.One of the women’s sons or daughters could either fall ill or get married, slowing down production. Estimating production time is a miraculous achievement and managing such a production process requires tremendous empathy, toughness and focus.

Battan is the one and only wool felting factory in Tunisia, which ever Kabbouss needs to pass through and endure a thorough beating in a lot of water in order to become a Chachia.  Ok, time for some facts: Battan was constructed in 1901 and is a classified historical national monument. Not a single stone of its structure can be moved without experts and not a single stone has ever been moved since its construction. Restoring Battan has been a national priority for decades but experts continue to wait for funding to commence restorations. The machines that beat up and shrink the Kabbouss into a Chachia haven’t changed since 1901 and are in need of constant maintenance. When the Medjerda river floods, water flows inside the Battan felting factory, forcing the entire production to stop.

If Chaouachi are not the national role-models of entrepreneurship, then who are?

Now here’s the good news: every boiled wool Chachia worn in Africa is made in Tunisia. The Tunisian Chachia incorporates know-how accumulated over 8 centuries of production for Africa. The quality of the Tunisian Chachia, which is the work of thousands of Tunisian hands, is of an individuality and quality that no other nation has ever been able to imitate. The Chachia is an underrated national success story!

As one Chaouachi once told me, “Every day when I’m ready to leave my house for work, I honour the Chachia by gently placing it over my head. Thanks to this little red boiled wool hat, I got married, educated my children and have been able feed my own and many other families. We cannot let go of this generous little hat, we will do everything in our power to make it survive!”

Leila Ben-Gacem

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